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an invisible minority

NARRATOR: Since the early 1600s, Connecticut's Indians have struggled against stereotypes, suspicion and racism.

CHIEF BIG EAGLE: I mean it wasn't a good thing to be Indian in this state. You couldn't get a job you couldn't get nothing else.

LORETTA ROBERGE (Mohegan Tribe): Well, my father was in the Navy and when the war started we moved back here. So, it was like a shock to us when I first came here to hear that I was called a half-breed. I had no idea what half-breed was. I asked -- came home from school and said to my father, "what is a half-breed?" And he said, "it really doesn't mean anything -- it's just people who don't know, who don't understand."

LEEANN VANVALKENBURGH (Schagticoke Tribe): It was ninth grade and it was the beginning of a history course, it was like within the first two weeks of school and the teacher had mentioned Native Americans. And when he said it, he said, "you know the people who look like they had a shovel pushed up in their face." And just hearing that, I was very, very offended but I didn't quite know how to handle that.

NARRATOR: Today public attitudes have begun to change.

JANIS US (Mohawk Heritage): I think mainly the public began to get educated. They began to realize that here was not just a drunken savage. They began to realize that we had very high artistic cultural background, that our beliefs. Well now you've got the environmentalist groups that are practicing beliefs that we've practiced since the very beginning of time.

BUTCH LYDEM: They were an invisible minority. Today, they're not so invisible and they're out there. They're in the political arena and they're taking a stand in what they believe in and what they stand for. And they're becoming more visible, they're gaining strength by number. And people are listening, people are finally listening to the plight of Native Americans.

NARRATOR: One sign of the growing visibility of Connecticut's Native Americans is the increasing number of contemporary powwows.

DOVIE THOMASON: I think there's a revival of awareness of us. And that we have always been here. And we've always remembered. We've always survived and we continue. So perhaps the revival isn't so much in us as it is in other's awareness of us.

WENDELL DEER WITH HORNS (Two Kettle Band, Lakota-Sioux): My name is Wendell Deer With Horns and I'm Two Kettle Band, Lakota, one of the many tribes in South Dakota from the Chine River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. I came out here in 1984.

NARRATOR: Wendell Deer with Horns is a hospital nurse's aide at Waterbury Hospital.

WENDELL DEER WITH HORNS: Having powwows, what we call powwow, is where we meet and socialize and have dancing and demonstrate our dancing, and demonstrate our food, our cooking, our games. It's a big event. You can meet new friends, maybe meet new non-Indian friends, bring them into our circle and invite them in and make them feel at home.

MIKKI AGANSTATA: I think all Indian individuals really anticipate the time of getting together and sharing, talking, laughing and having a good time together. But the opportunity to educate non-Indians seems to be the focus of most of the ones here in Connecticut. And I think it's like the only classroom that Indians really have today and that we should perhaps take it very seriously.

The Other Pequot

AGNES CUNHA (Pawcatuck Pequot Chairperson): Everyone thinks Pequots are Pequots. They’re not. They’re two separate groups.

NARRATOR: Near the wealthy and powerful Mashantucket Pequot nation is a historically linked tribe -- the Pawcatuck Eastern Pequot, who have experienced decades of disagreement over tribal membership.

AGNES CUNHA: Well right now it's kind of tough because we have 224.6 acres. And we can't even use all of it because we have non-Pequots living on our land, that's occupying our land.

NARRATOR: Agnes Cunha and her son Jim are leaders of one tribal faction, the Pawcatuck Eastern Pequot.

AGNES CUNHA: We know that these people are not who they claim they are. For 20 years we've been in legal limbo because of this. It's holding up our land claim.

ROY SEBASTIAN (Eastern Pequot Chief): We have the documentation, we have the history, we have the authentic research material. And it goes all the way back to the 1600’s.

NARRATOR: Roy Sebastian is the chief of the Eastern Pequot, located on the other side of the divided reservation property.

ROY SEBASTIAN: It's probably apprehension on the other side because our tribal family outnumbers their side in many, many numbers This would give us the power in the tribal government.

NARRATOR: The Pawcatuck Eastern Pequot internal dispute is similar to other questions of identity and membership that have periodically beset all state tribes.

ED SERABIA (Connecticut Indian Affairs Coordinator): Both groups believe they are the group. Both groups believe that they are legitimate. And both groups believe they have tribal leadership and/or tribal government approval to do what they can and want on the reservations. It's been rather a fierce split.

NARRATOR: Bill Bingham is the lawyer for the Eastern Pequot faction.

BILL BINGHAM (Attorney): There is, going back into the 1920s, when the state government was attempting to dictate to the tribe who could live on the reservation, there was a question over who the legitimate tribal leadership was and who was legitimately here. And that's continued unfortunately, to the present day.

I think the problem really is based on the same thing that historically has been the problem with Native Americans, is that because the US Government and local governments have tried to force them to accept certain conditions in order to gain favor from the government, they've pitted groups against each other.

ROY SEBASTIAN: We've been fighting for three, four hundred years for our rights, for our heritage, for our family and we'll continue to fight.

AGNES CUNHA: We're gonna sit here and fight for our rights. And that's all we're asking is our constitutional right, our civil rights and our birthright. That's all we want.

The Green Corn Festival

CURTIS CHAPMAN (Mohegan Tribe): We're standing right in the center of the old Mohegan Fort. This is where the ancient tribe lived. And this area is very, very unique in that there are about 100-foot cliffs around on all sides of this little point of land. It's a natural drop where you could defend yourself. And it's still a very, very important site to us today because we have our powwow here.

NARRATOR: The return of Fort Shantok State Park and its ancient Mohegan burial ground was an essential Mohegan demand during negotiations with the state following federal recognition.

Today the tribe's annual powwow at Fort Shantok continues the Mohegan's traditional Wigwam -- or Green Corn -- Festival, which was held from 1860 annually until 1936.

GLADYS TANTAQUIDGEON: It would have been, oh - probably 85 years ago that I would have remembered about. And through the winter-months the men and women would be busy making the baskets and doing all kinds of handwork, making items they would have for sale.

This annual green corn festival was homecoming for many of our Mohegan people and visitors from all over the country. So it was quite an occasion for them to come and meet some of our people and have a chance to have some good Mohegan-made succotash, the corn and beans. And the men would go clamming and get clams. And they'd make their own clam chowder -- and women, they made their own bread and cake and things like that.

NARRATOR: The Mohegan tribe has always prided itself on cooperation with non-Indians. In 1861, the tribe decided to forego their reservation in favor of individual ownership. Today, federal recognition has led to plans for a reconstituted reservation of more than 700 acres.

JAYNE FAWCETT: Years ago my great grandfather was instrumental in deciding that the Indians didn't want an overseer. We wanted to make our own decisions. And he felt that this was an important move, which is why the reservation was dissolved at the time. We're now thinking that perhaps there are other advantages, but at that time it was important to us and we became participating citizens in this town. And there has been a mutual spirit of respect.

NARRATOR: For many years the last tribal-owned property was the Mohegan Congregational Church, which has long served both the tribe and its neighbors.

CURTIS CHAPMAN: It's like the center of the universe to the Mohegan tribe. Everything starts here and radiates outward.

COURTLAND FOWLER (Mohegan Tribe): The missionaries kept coming around. And the Mohegans were getting tired of them coming around bothering them. So the church was founded in 1831 by Sarah Huntington. And two Mohegan women donated the land to the church. I remember coming at night and then they had kerosene lamps and it was very smoky. And I remember putting up pennies when they made up the collection. I'd put my penny in the collection box. There wasn't too many people here then.

CURTIS CHAPMAN: Right from the start this church has been a mixture of Indians and non-Indians, where there could be interaction between the Indians and non-Indians. The Mohegan always wanted to learn about Western culture.

NARRATOR: The Mohegan tribe plans to turn an old 244-acre nuclear industry site in Montville into Connecticut's second gambling/resort complex.

Tribal chief Ralph Sturges negotiated the reservation and gaming settlement with the state.

RALPH STURGES (Mohegan Chief): Tribal chiefs today have to be familiar with the laws of the land. And the chief today has to be thinking of what you can do to move this tribe into the 20th century so that they not only can maintain their heritages but they can also maintain their livelihoods. Tribes today have got to become self sufficient and the only way we can do that is by taking advantage of all the educational systems and the different other systems that are available to the Indians and the minorities in the country.


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Last modified: September 03, 2012